It’s the question the late David Foster Wallace puts before every reader of his novel Infinite Jest, the Shakespearean book title that doubles as the name of a movie within the encyclopedic tale.
In the story, the movie Infinite Jest so captivates hearts and eyes that no other entertainment can compete — the McGuffin of the novel, the plot-trigger for bigger themes to center on. “A lot of the book is about an art film director who comes up with a film that’s so entertaining that anyone who watches it never wants to do anything else,” said Wallace in an interview. “Then the interesting question becomes: If such a thing exists, do you avail yourself of it or not?”
In the novel, even the U.S. government does its best to investigate the addictive movie and its consequences. Body strapped to chair, electrodes stuck to temple, a lab mouse of a man watches the movie, narrating to researchers in lab coats the opening scene, that is, “before the subject’s mental and spiritual energies abruptly decline to a point where even near-lethal voltages through the electrodes couldn’t divert his attention from the Entertainment.”
Having seen the film, and wanting nothing more than to watch it repeatedly, the “victims” are consigned to psychiatric wards. “The persons’ lives’ meanings had collapsed to such a narrow focus that no other activity or connection could hold their attention. Possessed of roughly the mental/spiritual energies of a moth.”
If a movie were fatally good and lethally entertaining, would you see it?Death by Candy
In Wallace’s 1996 interview with Judith Strasser on Wisconsin Public Radio, he developed his personal anxieties over our amusement culture. The book is “a kind of parodic exaggeration of people’s relationship to entertainment now,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s all that different.”
He was sounding an alarm.
In the novel, U.S. and Canadian relations are strained to the point that certain Canadian elements attempt to broadcast the movie into the U.S. as cinematic subterfuge — an attempt to get America to “choke itself to death on candy.”
Wallace has managed to create a metaphor for America’s entire entertainment industry in one seductive film — so seductive, that the great challenge for the U.S. government is determining how to warn people not to watch the film without causing everyone to rush out to see it immediately.
“I think a lot of this sort of hugger-mugger in the book comes down to the fact that the government can’t really do a whole lot. That our decisions about how we relate to fun and entertainment and sports are very personal, so private that they’re sort of between us and our hearts,” he says. “In fact, there’s a fair amount of high comedy at the government, going around ringing its hands trying to figure out what to do. These decisions are going to have to be made inside us as individuals about what we’re going to give ourselves away to and what we aren’t.”
The novel is a pointed question to America’s citizens: Will they “have the wherewithal to keep from entertaining themselves to death?”Screens Better Than Life?
The novel was future looking, out a few years, but not too far. We’re living in his future, and he intended his alarm to ring loudest today. “The book is meant to seem kind of surreal and outlandish at first and then, in sort of a creepy way, to seem not all that implausible,” he said twenty-two years ago.
“At some point we’re going to have virtual reality pornography. I would just invite you to think about, given the level of people whose lives are ruined just by addiction to video peepshow stores now — what sort of resources we’re going to have to cultivate in ourselves and in our citizenry,” all to not give ourselves over to this technology? “I mean, maybe that sounds silly, but the stuff’s going to get better and better and it’s not clear to me that we, as a culture, are teaching ourselves or our children what we’re going to say yes and no to.”
Without being anti-entertainment or anti-TV, Wallace could sound the warning. “I think somehow, we as a culture have stopped or are afraid to teach ourselves that pleasure is dangerous, and that some kinds of pleasure are better than others, and that part of being a human being means deciding how much active participation we want to have in our own lives.”
“We have to reevaluate our relationship to fun and pleasure and entertainment because it’s going to get so good, and so high pressure, that we’re going to have to forge some kind of attitude toward it that lets us live.”
He was right. Media continues to get better and more vivid. CGI effects are becoming more moving. Movies more stunning. TV dramas more compelling. Actors more persuasive. “We’re going to have to come to some sort of understanding about how much we’re going to allow ourselves, because it’s probably going to get a lot more fun than real life.” He was speaking of TV, movies, gaming, and mass media, but even social media and the Internet, while democratizing voices, would not make our screens less addictive, and Wallace knew it.
Screens will become more fun than real life. “And the better the images get, the more tempting it’s going to be to interact with images rather than other people, and I think the emptier it’s going to get. That’s just a suspicion and just my own opinion.”Media Temperance
All of this was more than theory for Wallace, who ditched his TV. “I don’t have a TV because if I have a TV I will watch it all the time.” And that’s the simple self-awareness needed in the video age.
“I don’t own a TV, but that is not TV’s fault. It’s my fault,” he reiterated. “After an hour, I’m not even enjoying watching it because I’m feeling guilty at how nonproductive I’m being. Except the feeling guilty then makes me anxious, which I want to soothe by distracting myself, so I watch TV even more. And it just gets depressing. My own relationship to TV depresses me.”
Not all of our TVs should go in the garbage, but we should all cultivate media self-awareness.
That’s where media temperance begins. Not by asking: “Prove to me what I do is wrong”; or “Give me media diet intake restrictions”; or “Prove to me my gaming is wrong.” It starts with self-reflective awareness as we seek to preserve higher pleasures by saying no to lesser indulgences.Endless Good of TV
The problem with video gaming is not that gaming is evil, but that it’s immersively good. Gaming franchises are getting bigger as gameplay becomes more lifelike. We live in an age when all the aesthetic manicurists of digital visual pleasure culture have reached staggering heights of power and influence. They’ve never been better. And they’re getting better.
The problem with TV is not that TV is evil, but that TV is endlessly good at giving us exactly what we want whenever we want it. Our in-demand platforms continue to bulge with options, new releases and classic favorites from past generations. As the whole history of TV is offered to us, our new TV releases are getting more complex and textured, more graphically stunning, demanding more immersion and focus from viewers.
What it all means is that we, the viewers, are lured with ever more glittering bait to passive drift into an escapist dream from our boring lives with “whispers that, somewhere, life is quicker, denser, more interesting, more . . . well, lively than contemporary life.”
My real life will never compete with the tele-visual magicians of Electronic Arts, Nintendo, Hollywood, and HBO.Going Forward
I’m not suggesting that indulging in entertainment will leave us with no time for our morning devotions. I’m suggesting that by indulging in the candy of entertainment we are left with a weakened appetite for the solid nourishment of our daily devotions. The greater danger. We are not meant to barely survive with the spiritual energies of a moth, but to flourish in the alertness of the Spirit’s presence.
If Wallace were still alive, he’d certainly still be calling for us to walk out such a thought experiment to challenge our entertainment diets. But Christians are equipped by Scripture to take up the conversation from this point. These are very personal decisions between us, our hearts, and our God, all for the sake of our soul and for the sake of our kids, protective convictions that will make it possible for us to truly live, and to give our hearts away — not to a flickering screen that cannot love us back — but to give ourselves away to the spiritual pleasures of a Savior who promises to love us back because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
It is not for lack of compassion that men perish, but for lack of a heart that delights in the God of all compassion because of hard and rebellious hearts.
Without the work of the Spirit, we remain hopelessly dead in our sins. But where the Spirit of the Lord is, we find life and freedom.
We did not make it two steps into the movie theater’s front door before we were greeted, “What’s good, my brothas?” As he shouted to us over the masses in the ticket line, he crossed his arms, clenched his fists, and gave a slight bow — a Wakandan greeting.
“Ya’ll will understand after you watch it,” he said. And with that, he disappeared into the night, and we entered into Wakanda.
Overall, I was a fan of Marvel’s new blockbuster, Black Panther. It wasn’t “the best movie I have ever seen,” as one person told me repeatedly in the hallway, but it was one of the better Marvel films. The story picks up after the explosion in a previous Marvel movie where T’Chaka, the king of Wakanda, dies in the bombing. T’Challa, his son, then returns to his homeland to assume the throne and take his rightful place as king of Wakanda and as the Black Panther. But opposition arises, leaving the fate of Wakanda — and the rest of the world — at stake.
Having watched a civil-rights documentary beforehand, I found the ideologies of the two main characters to be thought-provoking. And although Black Panther has good action scenes, strong characters, a decent narrative, and helpful questions about global responsibility, the enchantment of the movie for many blacks in the theater was not, in my estimation, about the hero per se, but about the society. I left wanting to be like the Black Panther. But I left wanting to be in Wakanda even more.More Than a Movie
In the movie, Wakanda is a fictional African homeland hidden from the rest of the world. It is uncolonized, technologically advanced, brimming with black excellence and beauty, industrious, mountainous, breathtaking. But the utopia itself, not the black superhero, hit an ancient ache that four hundred years in America hasn’t come close to soothing. We rally around superheroes like the Black Panther because we hope that they can lead us to Wakanda.
But such a place was make-believe. Or so I thought.
Even before I could watch the movie, I heard the trickle of Wakanda’s waterfall, felt the sunshine of her gladness, and witnessed her people dance to her music. Men, women, and children were dressed in African garb. Families lined up to take pictures with the Black Panther poster. Strangers greeted one another in the hallways. The movie, to many, was more than a movie. It became a slice of Wakanda.
We walked in twenty minutes before showtime and people were already seated. And we were all early, not because we wanted to get good seats (they were already assigned), but because we didn’t want to miss a moment. We wanted to be in Wakanda as long as possible. For three hours, we celebrated sameness, leaders who cared deeply about the black community, and the beauty of black culture liberated from its history and current struggles.
As my Sierra Leonean Christian brother and I sat there, we wondered at the distinct pleasure we felt in this majority-black cultural moment. This movie was largely for us and by us (so to speak), and it pictured a world many of us have dreamed of for decades, a world many of us would choose over this world in a moment.
But at the same time, as a Christian, I thought, “What of the beauty of diversity? Shouldn’t that be the ideal? Is it wrong to feel so at home in Wakanda?”Tribe of the Panther
Similarity is one of Eden’s sweetest fruits. If Adam could have sighed in paradise, it would have been in naming the animals without being able to find “a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:20). The difference of the turtle’s shell pleased, the elegance of the eagle’s soaring captivated, but these were not Eve. And when Adam’s expectant eyes started to dim, God brought her from himself — and she captured him in ways no other creature could. So wonderfully different, and yet, finally, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23).
This delight in sameness is what C.S. Lewis calls the beginning of friendship: “The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one’” (The Four Loves, 65). Friendship shares a common love — or burden — that others do not share. I received a Wakandan reception at the movie theater because I experienced what it means to be black in America. I and the other black people in the theater knew what it is to be racially profiled, to be the “only one” in almost every setting, and to live under the current presidency — we knew what it is to live outside of Wakanda.
And so, we sat there with many people who looked like us and laughed at jokes that were hidden from some outside of the culture. We watched people who looked like us on the screen fight for the issues of people like us in a dreamland where our communities flourished. No slavery. No Jim Crow South. No second-class citizenship. No explaining what that phrase means — we all knew. A homogeneous society, a tribe of the Panther, provided a distinct pleasure for those within it.The Coming Wakanda
I can remember the first Wakandan experience I had with Christians. I can still remember the thrill of walking in to see a room full of African and African-American Christians on fire for Jesus. Never had I experienced anything like it. Men and women from similar backgrounds, who spoke the same vernacular, opened up their Bibles to hear from and worship God.
And during that time, I discovered that Paul acknowledged the pleasures of similarity, especially for those outside the faith: to the Jews he became a Jew, to those under the law as one under the law; he became all things to all people in order to win some (1 Corinthians 9:19–23). Finding yourself in a room full of similar people can make you feel at home like little else can. But as I continued in my Christian walk, Paul taught me that there is a pleasure that exceeds even the sweetness of cultural sameness.
He spoke of a completion of joy that comes from the diverse church in Philippi — full of men, women, children, little Jewish girls and Roman jailers — dwelling in fearless unity together (Philippians 2:2). He spoke of the grandeur of Jesus spilling his blood in order to unite his multiethnic people together into one new man (Ephesians 2:15). John added to the conversation by showing me a page from the last chapter of every believer’s story:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9–10)
In God’s word, I learned that his Wakanda has borders that expand beyond cultural similarity. All nations, all tribes, all tongues share a common citizenship, an everlasting fellowship that unites irrevocably. And this reality has already begun.
In Christ, I can greet a teenager in the mountains of Guatemala as “my brother.” I can divulge my deepest pains to an elderly white woman as I ask her to pray for me. Marrieds commune with singles; the rich dine with the poor. The healthy church is a foretaste of the coming paradise where Jesus, our King, unites a people of differences. Our distinctions don’t disappear, but a greater reason for unity appears. This family is connected by better blood: his.
In God’s coming Wakanda, he offers something even greater than the world of Black Panther: a unity made perfect through diversity. The different colors will complete the painting. The different notes will strike the chord. The eye will join with the nose and the arm to make the body whole. In that place, union — not uniformity — will be the greater light. There, the temporary brotherhood of the Panther will be engulfed by the diverse and eternal oneness of the Lamb.
All sin involves a conscious choice. But continuing to sin deliberately — with eagerness and persistence — will destroy the soul.
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11)
It had been a desperate search for inner peace. Call it satisfaction, joy, pleasure, happiness. Long had she sensed this gnawing ache, the stabbing pain of longing. Something just wasn’t right. Something incomplete.
She wouldn’t have thought of it in these terms till now. But as the campus ministry staffer shared her own story, and talked about tasting true satisfaction, it finally began to make sense. All the effort toward scholastic achievement. All the energy trying to get guys’ attention. The countless compromises she’d made along the way — ignoring what she knew to be best in the long term for what seemed most pleasurable in the moment (and then felt empty only moments later).
It had been a frantic chase, and only now was she seeing it — as she realized it was coming to an end. This is what she had always panted for. Now everything seemed to be spinning, and in slow motion. She was disoriented, and it was wonderful.
She sat across from someone who talked about Jesus as if she knew him personally. She could tell by looking into her eyes that this person had what she’d been so desperately trying to find all along. And it was being offered. At last it was hers.What You’re Searching For
It is a remarkable thing, almost too good to be true, that the God of ages past offers himself to us in the present as our truest satisfaction and deepest delight — after everything else we’ve tried, after all the other ways we’ve sought to find joy, after all the places we’ve looked and run to for satisfaction.
The Creator of the universe designed our hearts for himself — and in particular for his Son, who shared our flesh and spilt his own blood to rescue us. Our hearts are restless, said Saint Augustine, till they find their rest in him.
When his grace shines in and breaks our hearts of stone, we finally see that he is the one for whom we’ve been pining so deeply. He truly is the treasure, worth selling all we have to secure (Matthew 13:44). He is the one of surpassing value, worth losing everything else to gain (Philippians 3:8).
He is the one in whose midst all joy is found: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).He Holds the Future
The God of ages past not only offers us the pleasure of knowing him today; he promises “pleasures forevermore.” The joy he offers is not only deeper than any other; it is also more durable. He can satisfy your soul today, and he will satisfy it forever, in the coming ages, as he shows “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7).
The God of ages past enters into our present, sustains us, and carries us into the future. And for all eternity, it will only get better and better — the joy and satisfaction will only deepen and ripen and grow thicker and fuller — as the God of ages future draws us further up and further in to the infinite riches of knowing him.
My wife never forgot that conversation with the campus staffer. That was when the shutters of her soul were first thrown open and the light streamed in. That’s when the dam of her old heart of stone finally broke, and the grace of God flooded in. Those were her first real sights and tastes. But that was not the high point of her joy. The search was over, but the journey in Joy had just begun.
Christ’s blood is the great adhesive that unites the church together across time, racial divides, and class distinctions.
My Dear Globdrop,
I admit to modest expectations for your success, but the clumsy suggestions from your last letter have astounded even me. You’re on the brink of getting your man to leave his small group? Honestly, if I were not your uncle, I would demote you to a desk job at headquarters. If you want to forgo a life of disrupting the humans’ wifi signals, jamming their printers, and haunting the autocorrect on their text messages, then you must think more like a demon and less like the prey.
They, not we, assume that all small groups injure our cause, and thus that we must hate every last one of them. But what I assumed was apparent from our last discussion you seem to have missed completely. Nephew, we love your patient’s small group. In fact, one of the safest places in all the world to hide dead souls — and contaminate the living — is in such a cohort.
Now, don’t mishear me on this point. Keep your man as far away from all active regiments as possible. But this particular company of soldiers cannot march in straight lines or tighten up their boots properly — let alone load their rifles or fire pistols. Most are scarecrows, unanimated men and women who rather dislike spiritual exertion. Their weapons are too heavy, the armor of God too cumbersome — they pick dandelions on the field of battle. And believe it, Globdrop, their religious dizziness did not happen by accident.
At long last, we are reaping the harvest of what we sowed in corruption many years ago. We call it the A-bomb. It is an idea, a great Assumption really. The Assumption, simply put, is that everyone who believes themselves to be Christian is, in fact, so. To prevent any further confusion, let me explain.
Take a look at our beloved Ashley. She has been in the group now for four years and professing to be the Enemy’s for ten. Is she? Of course not. She is a perpetual gossip, totally unforgiving of her parents, and secretly feels about the Enemy’s own words like the humans do when stepping in something wet with socks. She shows no signs of that horrid change of heart that the Enemy makes in them. She has no real love for the Enemy — just a polite tolerance for the Christian religion. But there she sits, a Christian to all who see her weekly. Why? Because she thinks herself to be one. She thinks, therefore she is.
Nephew, although they never inspect each others’ uniforms, we take extra precautions just in case. Look at the girl. We taught her the accepted Christian slogans, filled her smartphone with (some) “Christian music,” got her to check a few spiritual boxes, then persuaded her that all discipline is nasty legalism, and even convinced her to get “grace” tattooed on her ankle — in Greek. In all my many eras of tempting, it has never been easier to pass the dead off for the living.
Ashley, along with countless other men and women, has been successfully smuggled behind their lines under the fog of this Assumption — despite even the most blatant contradictions in conduct. Most participants in such groups can come all the way here without any friction from their fellows who excuse lack of fruit as busyness, spiritual idleness as “freedom in Christ,” and unrepentance as merely that week in, week out moral clumsiness called falling.
For years now, we’ve watched the living among them smile at corpses, unable to admit that one of their own lies on the battlefield — not because he is spiritually drowsy, but because he is spiritually dead. See them prop dear Ashley up with sentimental platitudes? They have no suspicion that she is ours. We never tire of such groups. What ground the Enemy takes Sunday morning, we retake Wednesday evening.
In your group, (semi)regular attendance has even become itself a confirmation of each person’s salvation. Unlike those heathens who would never attend such a gathering, each “Christian” shows that they are truly saved not by that loathsome posture of repentance, faith, and desire for the Enemy and his people, but by their best efforts to attend the group each week. Remember, it is a Christian group after all. Who else would sacrifice a weeknight to drag three fussy children across town? Convince them that the weekly commute is really what their Master meant by taking up one’s cross.
Finally, to your man. Witness, my dear Globdrop, how a small group hit by this weapon aids in contaminating the living.
First, this group is teaching him not to take his Master too seriously. Although your rodent hears faint echoes of the Adversary’s demands — “He who does not love me more than all these is not worthy of me,” or “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind, your soul, and strength” — he looks at the spiritual stagnancy of his fellow Christians and dismisses those standards to accommodate these “believers.” Every day his shield lowers.
Second, see how he is learning how to presume upon the Enemy’s promises. He has begun joining them as they encourage each other that they are forgiven without condition (which they aren’t), that any guilt over sin is only from us (which it isn’t), and that their Master loves everyone who calls themselves his — no matter how they walk in darkness. Your pupil is being taught to love the “promises” of the Bible while ignoring the commands completely — the very thing their Master told them to teach, and observe, in his final commission to them. Of course, this means that, very soon, it will be clear that the promises have never been his, and that he has always been ours.
Now, Globdrop, should anyone discover our plans, taking seriously their Master’s plain words about being born again to enter his kingdom, remind them of one of our main verses — devoid of all context — that we delight in reciting to them: “Judge not, lest you be judged.” This will silence the cowardly from ever calling the dead to “examine themselves to make sure they are in the faith.”
Your man has chilled in his pursuit of godliness and has recently relaxed in his reading of the Adversary’s Book. Do not let him leave the group, lest you find your man drawn into a different battalion where the Enemy is enjoyed, souls are won, and the Assumption challenged by what they call “speaking the truth in love.” If that happens, you will answer to our Master directly.
Your disappointed but expectant Uncle,
Christians should be the most careful speakers in the world. We ought to be characterized by two kinds of trembling when it comes to words: we should tremble at the words God speaks and we should tremble at the words we speak.
We know we should tremble at God’s word, for he tells us,
“This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” (Isaiah 66:2)
But why should we tremble at the words we speak? Because Jesus said,
“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36–37)
“Every careless word.” That should stop us in our tracks. It should set us trembling, considering how many words we speak. And by “speak” I mean every word that comes out of our mouths, our pens, and our keyboards. We speak thousands of words every day, sometimes tens of thousands.
When we experience these two kinds of trembling, they occur for the same reason: we love and fear God and don’t want to profane his holy word or to profane his holiness with our unholy words. Such trembling makes us want to speak carefully and sometimes not speak at all. Because we believe,
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: . . . a time to keep silence, and a time to speak. (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7)A Time to Be Silent
There really is a time to keep silent. And that time comes more often than most of us are conditioned to think.
We live in an age of unceasing talk. Never in human history has the noise of human communication been so constant. Even when we are quiet we are not silent, as we receive and dispense talk through our digital media. Our culture does not believe that “a fool multiplies words” (Ecclesiastes 10:14).
On one level, it believes that multiplied words brings multiplied knowledge, and multiplied knowledge brings multiplied wisdom. On another level, not fearing God, it simply doesn’t really care how many words flow. So it relentlessly inundates us with information, analysis, commentary, critique, punditry, and mockery through every communication stream. We cannot help but be conditioned by this environment.
And with the advent of social media, nearly everyone now has a broadcast platform from which they can publicly hold forth on any social, cultural, political, economic, or theological issue, any controversy, any scandal, any whatever anytime they wish, regardless of what they know. And while the democratization of public communication is a remarkable historic phenomenon and certainly has some wonderful benefits, it is a dangerous thing, spiritually speaking. It’s an immense, cacophonous forum of multiplied, foolish, careless words, for which every participant, whether they know it or not, will give an account to God.The Beginning of Wisdom
Christians know that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” and “the beginning of knowledge” (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7). And one expression of that fear is trembling at God’s holy word, and at our own.
We are taught that it is profoundly wise for us to cultivate the discipline of being slow to speak (James 1:19). Slow to speak implies that there is a time for silence. Sometimes it means we are silent for some appropriate brief or extended period of time while being quick to hear (listening carefully), so we gain an accurate understanding of an issue before we speak carefully. And sometimes it means we don’t speak at all. The former is always a necessity for us; the latter is often a necessity.
God calls us to live counter to our hair tongue-trigger culture. In a world where rapid-fire information, rapid-fire commentary, and rapid-fire counter-commentary are continually igniting raging forest fires of words (James 3:5), the sons and daughters of God are called to be fire-quenching peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). And one of the underutilized ways of peacemaking is recognizing the time to keep silence. Less words can be less fuel for the fires.A Time to Speak
But Christians must not always keep silence. There is a time to speak and there are things we must say. Our God is a speaking God and we know he most definitely wants us to speak (Matthew 24:14; 28:19–20).
But when God speaks, he speaks very intentionally and, considering his omniscience, he speaks with tremendous restraint. And that’s the way he wants us to speak, as his exceedingly non-omniscient children and ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20): intentionally and with restraint. He wants us to learn to speak like Jesus.
We, like Job, have the tendency to speak rashly and confidently about things we really don’t understand (Job 42:3). But Jesus often said less than he knew because he was prayerfully listening to the Father and saying only what he discerned he was supposed to say (John 8:26). Just because he had a mouth and a public platform did not mean he should always employ them. Rather, he said, “I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me” (John 8:28). He perfectly lived out and modeled for us this verse:
Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips! (Psalm 141:3)
God deploys his children strategically in every sphere. He gives us each a few assignments and gives us each some things to say in order to bring the gospel to bear in our limited spheres. Each of us must prayerfully discern our spheres and limitations. None of us, as individuals, churches, or organizations, is called to address every current issue. And if this is true of issues we have knowledge about, it’s especially true of issues with which we have little or no personal experience.
If we are in some form of leadership where we are called to address such an issue, we should first pray for wisdom, then we should be publicly honest about what we don’t know and not succumb to pressure and try to speak more than we do know. And then, if the Lord leads, we should pursue the understanding required to speak more helpfully.
And when we do discern God’s direction for us to speak, we, like Jesus, remember that our mouths, fingers, and platforms still belong to God. We are not free to say whatever we wish about what we know. We do nothing on our own authority, but must say only what we discern God wants us to say.Tough, Tender, or Quiet?
We speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), but we don’t speak for human “likes”; we speak for God’s approval. So that means we sometimes speak a loving truth that’s tender and sweet (Proverbs 16:24), and other times we speak a loving truth that’s graciously hard (Proverbs 27:6). This is speaking like Jesus, who sometimes said things like, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28), and who at other times said things like, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5).
Discerning when to say a loving tender truth, when to say a loving tough truth, and when to say nothing at all is the tension God has purposefully designed to keep us prayerfully dependent on him. It is frequently not patently obvious. There are times we really want to speak and we should not. And there are times we really don’t want to speak and we should.
What will help us most in discerning when it’s a time to keep silence or a time to speak is cultivating a holy trembling at God’s word and at our words. The right kind of fear of the Lord is our best mouthguard.
Bacon, ground beef, sausage — God allows us to eat meat. But he didn’t always allow it. Is it wise to return to a pre-fall diet?
Christian preaching isn’t a lecture or monologue, but a miracle of the Holy Spirit working in and through the pastor and the people.
They escorted him to the pulpit of St. Mary’s University Church in Oxford, for one last time before his execution, to read out his recantation of his Protestant faith. Instead, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer made this ringing declaration:
As for the sacrament, I believe as I have taught in my book against the bishop of Winchester, which my book teacheth so true a doctrine of the sacrament, that it shall stand in the last day before the judgment of God, where the papistical doctrines contrary thereto shall be ashamed to show their face.
Pandemonium ensued. Cranmer was hauled down and dragged to the stake to be burnt, one of hundreds of martyrs in Queen Mary’s Counter-Reformation.
What was this “true doctrine of the sacrament” worth dying (and killing) for? What were the “papistical doctrines” that Cranmer was convinced would not stand before God’s judgment seat?What Is in the Cup?
Well, the first and most important thing to say was that it was not chiefly a debate over the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This is almost certain to throw some for a loop given the popular representation of the debate.
Most of us have heard that whereas the Roman Catholic Church staunchly maintained the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Protestants tended to spiritualize this presence, focusing on the inward communion with Christ by faith. However, the primary point of dispute in the sixteenth century between Protestants and Catholics was not over whether the body of Christ was present in the Eucharist. Rather, it was over whether bread and wine were present in the Eucharist.
This was the straightforward meaning of the term “trans-substantiation.” By virtue of the priest’s words of consecration, the “substance” or fundamental what-ness of the bread was transformed into the substance of Christ’s body, and the wine into the blood. This meant that after the transubstantiation, neither bread nor wine remained in the elements. As Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) wrote in his influential treatment of the issue in the Summa, “Some have held that the substance of the bread and wine remains in this sacrament after the consecration. But this opinion cannot stand.” Indeed, the Council of Trent went so far as to insist that anyone who affirmed that bread and wine remained, as Protestants consistently did, were to be condemned of heresy:
If any one saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood — the species Only of the bread and wine remaining — which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation; let him be anathema.
Now, obviously this did not mean the bread became actually fleshy and the wine became actually bloody — thank goodness! Aquinas wrote that divine providence has wisely chosen to hide the substance of the body and blood under the “accidents” of bread and wine, since “it is not customary, but horrible, for men to eat human flesh” and the sacrament “might be derided by unbelievers if we were to eat our Lord under his own species.”Substance and Accidents?
So what is this distinction of substance and accidents? To put it in layman’s terms, the “accidents” are all of the outward qualities of a thing, the ways in which it manifests itself to us. These can usually undergo a certain degree of change without the thing itself ceasing to be what it is (for example, the bread may become stale or moldy and still be, for a time at least, bread).
The “substance” is, as I called it above, the “fundamental what-ness,” that which essentially makes the thing what it is and which persists through changes. This distinction derives from Aristotle (384–322 B.C.), but we would be mistaken in thinking (as Protestants have often wrongly charged Catholics) that the doctrine of transubstantiation relied on Aristotelian philosophy — that it was, perhaps, an example of the unhealthy intrusion of philosophy into theology.
On the contrary, transubstantiation clearly inverts the Aristotelian categories that it draws on. For Aristotle, it made perfect sense to speak of a substance remaining the same while the accidents changed (within certain limits, at least), but no sense at all to speak of a substance changing while the accidents remained the same — as transubstantiation asserted.
Substance and accidents for Aristotle were not two separable variables, but two components of a thing that always went together. Indeed, it was precisely by observing the accidents of a thing that we formed our initial determination of what kind of substance it was. Aquinas, at least, was well aware of his departure from Aristotle at this point, and insisted that the transformation in question was “entirely supernatural, and effected by God’s power alone.”
Whatever else we might think about transubstantiation, we should not fall prey to the claim that this is what you have to believe if you want to take Christ’s presence in the Eucharist seriously.Relying on Common Sense
Second, it is important for us to note that, contrary to many modern accounts, it was the Catholics, not the Protestants, who preached a parting of nature and grace, faith and reason — at least on this key issue. It has become common today to assert that in the Reformation period, Roman Catholics insisted on the necessity of a reasonable faith (a collaboration between philosophy and theology), while Protestants camped out on the mere literal words of Scripture. Similarly, it is asserted that Catholics taught the “sacramentality of the world,” asserting that mere material creatures served as vehicles and vessels of God’s grace, while the Reformers drove a wedge between the material and the spiritual.
On the contrary, the Reformers steadfastly preached that the humble creatures of bread and wine could become instruments of God’s grace to us, while still remaining what they were. They did not first need to be turned into something else entirely. On this point, at least, they were more faithful adherents of Aquinas’s principle, “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it” than Aquinas himself.
Therefore, Protestants resisted the idea that reason must be simply checked at the door when it came to theological questions. Even if Luther sometimes spoke this way, his successors patiently explained the philosophical contradictions in the Catholic position, arguing that while faith sometimes transcends reason, there is no reason to fly in the face of common sense unless Scripture clearly requires it. The Reformed particularly argued that it was irresponsible to try to take the eucharistic words of institution in isolation from other Scriptures which teach that we receive the body and blood of Christ through the inward organ of faith, not the outward organ of the mouth.
We have plenty of doctrines that do transcend our understanding, but we should not hastily take refuge in “mystery” when Scripture does not actually require a seemingly-irrational belief.Why It Matters
Why did all this matter so deeply in the sixteenth century — and still matters today? The doctrine of transubstantiation, the Reformers charged, undermined the purpose of the sacrament as an actual meeting place between God and his people. When combined with the Catholic doctrine of eucharistic sacrifice (that Christ is, in a sense, re-sacrificed again and again every mass), it became something that took place outside of us.
If the body of Christ was statically present on the altar as a sacrifice for sins, rather than dynamically present to believers and in believers to sanctify us with the fruits of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice, then the important action happened in the hands of the priest on the altar, not in the mouths of believers — and definitely not in the inner person.
Indeed, the vast majority of masses on the eve of the Reformation were celebrated privately, with no one but the consecrating priest present. When ordinary believers did partake, they received the bread only and not the wine. Most of the time, they only engaged the eucharistic elements by adoring them and praying before them, where they were reserved in special boxes in the churches or paraded through the streets once a year at the Feast of Corpus Christi.
Against this emphasis, the reformers, and especially the Reformed, insisted on the reception, not the consecration as the key thing, since the central purpose of the sacraments was to unite us to Christ. Calvin famously declared, “As long as Christ remains outside of us and separated from us, whatever he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.” It was simply no use at all to have bread and wine turned into the body and blood of Christ, sitting on an altar, uneaten and undrunk.
Indeed, as Italian Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli pointed out, no one made such silly claims for other sacraments, “where everything consists in action. When that is done there is no longer a sacrament.” The act of baptizing was a sacrament, but the baptismal water did not remain a sacrament afterward in the way that, on the Catholic understanding, the bread and wine did. In short, the reformers granted, with their Catholic opponents, that Christ is objectively offered in the sacrament, but this is not the priest’s offering himself up for us, but Christ’s offering himself to us.
Ultimately, then, the debate over transubstantiation is another battleground of the Reformation’s great war against the belief that Jesus works through the church outside of us, another place where we must contend for the Bible’s glorious teaching of Jesus at work within us.Holding to Human Doctrine
Although Vatican II (1962–1965) has reformed Catholic eucharistic theology and practice in ways responsive to many of the Reformation’s concerns, the Catholic Church still officially holds to Trent and its decrees of “anathema” against anyone who would deny transubstantiation.
Of course, you’re likely to find that many ordinary Roman Catholics, if they hold the doctrine at all, do so in a rather fuzzy way, and might actually be closer to the reformers’ doctrine. And they are likely to think of Protestants as rejecting any kind of meaningful presence of Christ in the sacrament. It’s important for us to be historically aware so we can point out these confusions, and challenge our Catholic friends and family to consider their own beliefs more carefully. We can show them that nowhere in the Bible are we called to embrace such an irrational doctrine as transubstantiation. To the extent that Catholics want to hold to it, they hold to human doctrine.
When God speaks to our hearts, it is incredibly precious. To hear him, we don’t look for a mystical experience, but believe his word by faith.
It was our first date. I wasn’t even completely sure she knew it was a date. We met at a wedding, and then talked on the phone once a week or so for a couple of months. I asked if I could take her out, and she conceded.
I bought a couple board games, chose a trendy new taco joint, and found a non-chain coffee shop to hang out in after lunch. Coffee said I’m interested and serious, but not desperate. Board games said I know how to laugh and have fun, but that I’m here to win. I don’t know what tacos said, but I like them.
It was a great date. The conversation was a sweet mixture of serious and silly, of storytelling and good follow-up questions, all of it filled with our shared love for Jesus. A few hours went by really fast. Feeling confident, I told her how I felt about her, and asked if she wanted to begin dating.
“I had a great time today, too. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you. I’ve really enjoyed our conversations, and the way you’ve pointed me to Jesus. . . .” Everything I wanted to hear. “You’re a nice human being . . .” Wait, what does that even mean? “. . . but when I think about a relationship, my heart is cold.”
Long, awkward, uncomfortable pause. “Cold?” “Yeah . . . cold.” “Like ice-cold, or lukewarm?” “Cold.”
What went so wrong? What should I have done differently? It all seemed so comfortable, so exciting, so right, so sure. But when the day was done, she was colder than a Dairy Queen, and I was just “a nice human being.” It had started to feel like this might finally be my last first date. Of course, I guess first dates had felt like that before. Either way, here I was back where I began. Roller-coaster rides like these were enough to make you want to give up on marriage.Your Last First Date
What was your last first date like?
Did it go well, and lead to more? Or did you leave never wanting to go through that again — thinking, Maybe marriage isn’t worth all of the pain, confusion, and heartache we endure to have it?
Many among the not-yet married need the reminder that marriage is spectacular and needed in our society, and that’s because it belongs to God. God may call you to a lifetime of satisfied and fruitful singleness, or your next first date may be the first step of decades of enjoying him with a husband or wife. If we want to be married (and are willing to make ourselves vulnerable again in dating), it should be because we want more of God.Is Marriage Worth It?
When divorce rates remain high, and the surviving marriages around us seem broken, messy, and unhappy — and when plenty of other good things keep us busy — lots of young men and women in their twenties and thirties are giving up on marriage, or at least discounting it in their plans and dreams.
Some of you have tried dating and been burned — confusion, rejections, sexual failure, breakups, or whatever else plagues our relationships. Others are sons and daughters of divorce. You were ripped apart, and left in pieces to be traded back and forth. With all the pain, failure, and friction, it simply can’t be worth it, can it? I can be known and loved in other ways. Marriage isn’t necessary for my happiness or significance here on earth.
That last sentence is true and important. You do not have to be married to be happy. But are we overlooking some significant things about what marriage really is, and why, at least for many, it’s worth all the time, patience, and even heartache?What Demons Say About Marriage
Two thousand years ago, people were already questioning whether marriage was worth it. The apostle Paul says, “Some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1). What lies were they believing when they left the faith? What were the demons saying? They “forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Timothy 4:3).
When we forget the goodness and beauty of marriage, we belittle something good and beautiful God is doing. Why? “For everything created by God” — including marriage — “is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4). God made marriage, and he meant for us to enjoy it with thankful hearts. He calls it good, even today.
To say otherwise is to say something about him.
For centuries, marriage was a mystery, until God began unlocking its long-hidden meaning with the gospel. Paul quotes Moses, “A man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31). Then Paul says, “This mystery is profound” — it’s been hidden since God gave Eve to Adam — “and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:32). The mystery isn’t mysterious anymore. What makes marriage profoundly beautiful, meaningful, desirable, and powerful is that it acts out God’s love for us. We get to relive the greatest love story ever told.The Beauty of the Best Marriages
What makes marriage worth having? The beauty and joy of Christian marriage is not compatibility. Compatibility may be the rare jewel we’re hunting for in all our dating relationships, but relationships and marriages don’t stand out, thrive, and last because the two of us make sense together. No, the beauty and joy of Christian marriage is Christ, shining in our joyful and unwavering commitment to each other, even when we’re less compatible and least deserving of each other’s love. Passion, infatuation, and compatibility may make for a good honeymoon, but only a mutual love for Jesus will keep a marriage healthy for a lifetime.
The best marriages will be the hardest to explain — not because you are so different (you might be), but because you’re still loving each other so patiently, sacrificially, and passionately after years of inconvenience, conflict, and giving up so much. How do they still love each other so much? Well, because we have been loved like that and more.
Paul says, “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly . . . . God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6, 8). He didn’t die for us because he finally found the love of his life. We were not marriage material when he met us. No, he died to make us the love of his life, despite how little we deserved him. A love like his makes a marriage worth wanting, and it makes a marriage worth keeping.What Are Wedding Vows?
“Wedding vows,” writes Tim Keller, “are not a declaration of present love, but a mutually binding promise of future love.” Marriage is mainly a love declared, not a love discovered.
Have you thought about your wedding day that way? The promises you will make before God, and before all your friends and family, have little to do with what you experienced and enjoyed in your dating relationship — and everything to do with the uncertain and uncontrollable months and years ahead.
You’re not standing there together before God, family, and friends to say, “I really do love you,” but to say instead, “I really will love you” — whatever it takes, however hard it gets, whatever happens, however much I want to leave. That kind of love will stand out in the world, and it will last long after many have given up and walked away.The Big Goal in Dating
All our desires for dating should spring from a big vision of what marriage is and why it’s worth wanting. In all of your dating, keep your last first date in mind — your first date with your future spouse.
I definitely didn’t know it at the time, but mine was over trendy tacos, coffee, and board games. The Dairy Queen slowly warmed over the next few months. Two years later, she became my wife. In the meantime, we both had a big picture of what God designed marriage to be in front of us. We had no idea if we would get married, and we never assumed we would. In fact, we intentionally dated as if we were going to marry someone else, to keep us from idolizing each other or going too far too soon. But we knew the only thing worth dating for was a marriage — a lifelong, life-on-life love like Jesus’s love for us.
God’s idea of marriage is the only vision big enough, strong enough, and worth enough for all the risks we take in dating. Nothing else is worth all the risk we take when we begin to share our hearts with someone else. Nothing else will protect us from diving in too quickly or jumping ship when things get hard. Nothing else will stand out enough from the world around us to say something significant about Jesus.
If you want to date well, keep a big, sacred, breathtaking picture of marriage in front of you.
Don’t let the truth of God’s electing love prevent you from declaring that Christ died for all. Whoever believes in him will have eternal life.
Marriage is not mainly a love discovered, but a love declared. Wedding vows do not say, “I really do love you,” but “I really will love you.”
Unity among believers is not just a good thing or a normal thing. It is a God-given and sacred thing.
Trust is essential.
According to one researcher, trust is the cornerstone of every relationship. But how do we become trustworthy? And how do we regain trust in someone when they’ve done something to betray our trust?
As essential as trust is for healthy relationships, trust is also tricky. In my counseling training, I was taught, “Trust is the result of trustworthy actions.” This is a handy description, but it needs some nuance to be effective. The obvious question is “What are trustworthy actions?” The answer may seem easy at first blush, but relationships of any length quickly reveal that what one person conceives of as trustworthy activity often goes unnoticed or underappreciated by the other.
John Gottman, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington, has done quite a bit of clinical research on the topic. According to Dr. Gottman, trust is built when we observe actions that let us know another person is for me, even when it costs them. Notice the two components to that description: one person doing; the other person recognizing. Both are equally necessary to build or rebuild trust. Conversely, when they are lacking, mistrust begins to build.
We can outline the process of rebuilding trust in four steps: (1) admit and repent, (2) define and exhibit trustworthy actions, (3) recognize and encourage trustworthy actions, and (4) trust in God.Trust Recovery
Let’s take an example. A wife discovers that her husband is using pornography. She is understandably devastated and now mistrusts her husband’s every technological activity. How does the couple move forward and regain trust?
First, the husband must admit and repent. Trust cannot even begin to be restored if the wife doesn’t have a sense that her husband understands the pain that he has caused her. Admitting and repenting is in and of itself a process, and one that should not be short on sorrow, shame, tears, and apologizing. (For more information on repentance, I highly recommend Thomas Watson’s “Six Ingredients to Repentance,” summarized here.)
But let’s assume the husband has taken those steps, and now he genuinely wants to repair the massive trust wounds he has created. The couple must work to define actions that demonstrate to his wife that he is willing to sacrifice for her benefit, especially in the area of technology usage. For instance, he may need to give her complete access to all his devices to be checked at her pleasure. Or she may want to put a tracker on his smartphone to make sure he’s not using it inappropriately. Or she may want her husband to have an accountability partner to whom she herself can talk, in order to make sure her husband is following through.
These steps might hurt the husband’s dignity, but they may be necessary to help the wife begin to rebuild trust. Both husband and wife must define what behaviors are trustworthy in the aftermath of the husband’s pornography usage.
At the same time, the wife needs to recognize the steps her husband is taking. She should openly appreciate and encourage her husband. If she takes the husband’s steps of sacrifice for granted, mistrust and resentment will begin to build in him. Of course, even if the wife doesn’t respond well, that is no excuse for her husband to continue in sin. The husband has a clear mandate from God about how he must treat his wife, and that holds true regardless of her response. Nonetheless, the probability of trust being rebuilt is so much higher if one partner intentionally recognizes the efforts of the other.
Trust increases when both people are willing to push themselves. While one partner shows that they are willing to take steps to actively rebuild trust, the other partner also must show that they are willing to entrust themselves to that partner. But how can we begin to entrust ourselves to someone who has betrayed us? The answer, ultimately, is that we start by trusting God.Trust in God
Let me suggest that the definition of trust we’ve been discussing is rooted not in the writings of a twenty-first-century researcher, but in the word of God. When God himself is the anchor of our trust, we can engage in trust-restoring activity. He is a covenant-keeping God whose promises are faithful and sure (Isaiah 25:1). He is utterly and totally reliable — even when his promises seem so far off.
We can trust God because he demonstrated his favor for us even when it cost him everything. God stands in need of nothing. He doesn’t need us or our worship. He was not short on communion and fellowship, nor was he lacking in glory. He chose to be self-sacrificial in the most painful and demonstrable way possible. Therefore he, and he alone, is the bedrock of our trust and the object of our highest hopes. When the focus of our trust rests primarily on God and God alone, we can cry out with Job, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15).
Anchor your heart in the unfailing words of a faithful God (Joshua 21:45), and his words will give you the strength to engage in the terrifying activity of entrusting yourself to someone who has betrayed you. When we are called to forgive and be restored, which means making ourselves vulnerable again in some way, only God’s promise of comfort and closeness can, in the end, ease our anxieties and soothe any future pain.
Our hope, our trust, and our faith do not find their strength or confidence in the actions of a fellow sinner, but in the steadfast love of a sinless Savior. There, and there alone, will we find a well of trust that never runs dry and never betrays.
Unity among believers is not just a good thing or a normal thing. It is a God-given and sacred thing.
Instagram selfies, Facebook updates, and endless Snaps feed off our self-focus and self-exaltation. But the sins behind the technology are not new.